Hidden Hawaii: Offbeat Destinations in the Aloha State

19 December 2017

Don’t be a sucker. There’s way more to Hawaii than cocktails and Waikiki.

More than 8 million people visit Hawaii each year to enjoy its sandy white beaches, azure waters and laid-back culture. However, this popularity also has a downside: congested beaches, heavy traffic and tourist traps abound in the islands’ most popular vacation destinations. Hotspots like Waikiki Beach may be packed with tourists, but virgin shores and unspoiled waters lurk just around the corner.


Hawaii may be one of the most popular vacation spots in the world, but this cluster of tiny islands is one of the last untouched spots on the globe. Situated to the northwest of Hawaii’s more densely populated islands, the rocky islands and coral atolls are home to some of the some of the rarest species in the world. The dark brown Laysan duck and the Nihoa fan palm tree are found nowhere else in the world, while the adorable Hawaiian monk seal lives mainly in and around the Northwestern Islands.

Since 2006, the islands have been protected as part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. However, due to the fragile nature of the local ecosystem, visitors are severely limited from entry to the islands. Guests must come by private plane or boat and are required to apply for a special permit four months in advance. Currently, Midway Atoll is the only island even partially open to sightseers. Educators, documentarians and scientists are allowed access to the more vulnerable areas.

For those who are unable to secure permits, Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo offers tourists a glimpse into the unique ecosystem of the Northwestern Islands.



Every year, more than 2.6 million people visit the island of Maui, but most visitors flock to see Haleakala Crater or bustling beaches on the island’s west side. However, for travellers who want to get away from it all, there is no better destination than Hana, a tiny community perched on Maui’s west coast.

Hana remains a low-key haven that has escaped much of the commercialism that has increasingly come to dominate the rest of Hawaii. Active travellers will enjoy hiking to Kaihalulu Beach, a red volcanic beach where they can swim in warm waters protected from the elements by giant red cliffs. Hikers can also explore the volcanic coasts in Wai’anapanapa State Park or camp in one of the park’s rustic green cabins.

Nature lovers will want to tour the nearby Kahanu Garden, home to the largest collection of breadfruit trees in the world. The garden is also the location of Pi’ilanihale Heiau, an important prehistoric Hawaiian temple built in the 1200s.


This tiny island is one of the last bastions of traditional Hawaiian culture left in the islands. The few dozen native inhabitants all live in the small village of Puuwai and mainly work on the Niihau Ranch, which raises sheep and eland antelope for commercial meat. Most of the island’s residents speak Hawaiian as their first language and have no access to paved roads or modern plumbing. They hunt and fish for additional subsistence in much the same way their ancestors did. This unusual state of affairs is possible because the island has been privately owned by the Robinson family since 1864.  After Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, the Robinsons felt that is was their duty to protect the native Hawaiians from outside influences. However, they did institute strict rules requiring residents to attend church every Sunday and abstain from alcohol and gun ownership. In return, the residents do not pay taxes or rent. For many years, visitors were not allowed to travel to the island without an express invitation from the Robinson family, earning it the nickname of the Forbidden Isle. Today, boat and diving tours cruise around the island, allowing visitors to enjoy the unspoiled waters of the Pacific. The area is abundant in sealife like manta rays, spinner dolphins and butterfly fish. Hunters can book safari tours on the island’s Niihau Ranch, but venturing near the village is strictly forbidden.



Only accessible by plane, Molokai hovers in the centre of the Hawaiian Islands. Life here is more laid back than in other more crowded islands. Local residents have long resisted attempts to develop the island, instead focusing on sustainable tourism and minimising pollution to the land and sea. The island’s main attractions are the former leper colonies of Kalawao and Kalaupapa. Around a dozen former leprosy patients still live in Kalaupapa. Today, visitors can hike to see two historical churches that still stand in the area, although permits are required. The island is also well-known for its pristine white beaches like Papohaku Beach, the largest beach in Hawaii. Despite its enormous size, the beach is almost never crowded and is perfect for sunbathing and relaxing. Other uncongested beaches include Kapukahehu Beach, a good spot for swimming, and Murphy’s Beach, a favourite location for local snorkellers. The island also hosts an annual three-day hula festival each June with food, crafts and hula dancing.



On the northern shore of Kauai, the aquamarine waters of Hanalei Bay irresistibly beckon tourists from all over the world. Despite its mellow vibe and unhurried lifestyle, Hanalei Bay is one of the more unspoiled shorelines in the main Hawaiian Islands. Against a backdrop of emerald mountains, swimmers and snorkelers plunge into its warm waters, hoping to catch a glimpse of local sea turtles and dolphins. Many locals in the area cultivate taro to make traditional Hawaiian poi. During the summer, residents get together for a hukilau, a community event where they use giant nets to pull fish from the ocean. This custom is an ancient one and helps to pass old traditions down to young adults and children. Classic film buffs will recognise the Hanalei pier from the 1958 musical South Pacific.



Unlike the crowded beaches found on the rest of the island of Oahu, the North Shore provides a much-needed escape from the island’s hordes of tourists. The sandy white beaches of the North Shore are perfect for sun bathing and strong waves make surfing and body boarding conditions ideal. While visitors looking for fun nightlife and glitzy tourist destinations might be disappointed by the lack of activities in the area, those seeking out relaxation on the beach and appreciation of nature will be more than satisfied.
Hikers will enjoy traversing the volcanic slopes of Kaena Point State Park, located on the westernmost portion of Oahu. The park is home to many species of marine life like green sea turtles and dolphins. Depending on the weather, visitors can also enjoy snorkelling and scuba diving along the shore. Inland, the Waimea Valley park boasts beautiful botanical gardens and soothing waterfalls. On select days, visitors are allowed to swim in the refreshing pond fed by the park’s 45-foot waterfall.
For those more interested in local culture, the park also features several sacred Hawaiian temples, a historical Hawaiian village and resident artisans demonstrating how they make traditional weapons, musical instruments and baskets.

From the remote Northwestern Islands to the hidden shores of Oahu, fun and relaxation await off Hawaii’s beaten path. It is possible to enjoy island life while avoiding teeming beaches and overdeveloped waterfronts. By escaping the hubbub of Hawaii’s overflowing attractions, visitors can explore secluded parts of the islands and enjoy a stress-free vacation.

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” –Virginia Woolf

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